February 2, 2017

Foreshadowing for the Cornelius Gurlitt Case?

By: Mairead McAuliffe

On January 13, 2017 a Frankfurt District Court confirmed the legal use of Germany's statute-of-limitation in a Holocaust art restitution case, thereby muting the need for an exacting provenance of the artwork in question. This article questions what this decision indicates for other restitution cases in Germany, specifically the Cornelius Gurlitt case. This piece also explores possible legal amendments to current laws according to Marc Masurovsky*, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project.    

In February 2012, German police and customs officials executed a warrant to search Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment located in Munich. Inside the apartment, officials discovered 121 framed and 1,285 unframed artworks by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Chagall. It was a collection that could be valued at more than a billion dollars. Gurlitt was first placed on a customs watch list in 2010, appearing suspicious to the officials that boarded his train crossing the Lindau border. Gurlitt remained largely untraceable, investigators found no trace of a state pension, health insurance, tax and employment records, or bank accounts. Yet, his name raised some questions with investigators. Cornelius Gurlitt shared a name with Hildebrand Gurlitt, a known art curator under the Third Reich. 

The relation was confirmed in December 2011, when Gurlitt surfaced after selling one of Max Beckmann's masterpieces, The Lion Tamer. Gurlitt split the proceeds of the sale with the heirs of the Jewish art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, who, as Gurlitt acknowledged, sold the piece under duress to his father in 1934. It was then that authorities acted on the search warrant issued a few months prior, on the grounds of suspected tax evasion and embezzlement, and discovered the trove of art. 

For the next three days, officials packaged and moved the artworks out of Gurlitt's apartment to a customs warehouse in Garching. The discovery was kept from the press as public knowledge of Gurlitt's collection would have sparked mass outcry and an inundation of claims to the art. However, the covert case was exposed on November 4, 2013 when the German newsweekly, Focus, published the story on their front page. The expected firestorm ensued as restitution activists demanded the publishing of the art pieces to allow Holocaust decedents to lay claim to the looted works. 

German restitution laws are, quite frankly, unsympathetic to those who seek reprisal of Nazi looted artworks. Germany did sign the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which states that museums and other public institutions should return such works to their rightful owners. However, compliance is voluntary and excludes cases in which private citizens hold the pieces – as is the case with Cornelius Gurlitt. Furthermore, Germany enforces a 30-year statute of limitations on making claims to stolen property, thereby calling into question the ability of heirs to lay claim to pieces from Gurlitt's collection. 

Since the discovery, efforts have been made to conduct and complete a provenance trace for the 1,406 artworks found in Gurlitt's apartment. However, despite the possibility of solid, traceable provenance, under German law, there is no mandate to return the artworks to their original owners, or heirs. In November, 2013, the newly appointed Bavarian Minister of Justice, Winifried Bausback, initiated legislation to revise the statute-of-limitation law such that heirs to looted art could reclaim their familial property. Currently, the law is not automatically invoked, the defendant must expressly invoke the limitation in order to protect against the claim of the owner. The proposed legislation would install a two-pronged defense that the owner can employ to proceed with the requisition, despite the law's invocation. The first requirement would be that the property must have been lost in a legal sense. The second requirement would mandate that only the true possessor can rely on the statute, therefore, a bad faith possessor would not be able to invoke the statute and legal action can proceed. Such legislation would obviously aid in the return of looted works to their correct owner. 

Yet, while the status of the Bavarian Minister's legislative initiative is unknown, the District Court in Frankfurt recently handed down a decision that could have consequences for the Gurlitt case specifically, and other restitution cases, more generally. In Frankfurt, an heir of Robert Graetz, a Jewish textile manufacturer and art collector, brought a claim against the current owner of a Max Pechstein painting, which he believes Robert was required to forcefully sell prior his family's deportation to Auschwitz. The defendant invoked the statute-of-limitation and challenged this alleged provenance. The Frankfurt court ruled that the expired 30-year limitation took precedent over the need for an exacting provenance, thus the Graetz estate has no claim to the painting. This decision, in essence, upholds Germany's statute-of-limitation in regards to artworks.   

When asked about this recent decision, Marc Masurovsky, the co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), said that this decision reflects a "traditional legal defense against restitution claims." However, he stresses that this decision should "in no way" prevent the drafting of an exacting provenance in such cases. He believes that this decision highlights a need for the "passage of stricter laws governing provenance," such adjustments may include setting "sufficient standards whereby objects with no provenance should not be introduced into the marketplace, or offered to museums." Instead, Masurovsky believes that such objects should, ideally, not be "traded, sold, bought, displayed, loaned, borrowed or donated." Yet, he acknowledges that this is "not even remotely possible to enforce," since most objects in the art market fall into these categories and the demand for a full provenance would kill the industry. Therefore, Masurovsky believes that new standards should be developed that "clearly define an acceptable provenance," in other words, outline what minimal criteria should be met in order for an object to be lawfully moved in the market. Masurovsky further believes that Germany, because of its history, "carries an unusual responsibility, an ethical burden if you will, to 'do what is right'" and initiate changes to its current laws. Currently, the German courts allow the statute-of-limitations to function as a "technical defense" or "convenient tool" which he believes allows defendants to "debunk and kill a claimant's request for restitution," as seen in the Graetz case. However, for Marc, all countries "regardless of their historical relationship with the Nazi/Fascist years, the Holocaust and WWII, should enact laws that protect victims of cultural plunder, that raise the ethical bar in the art market."  

Regarding the Gurlitt case specifically, Masurovsky confirms that the artworks discovered in Gurlitt's apartment are in the custody of the German government, yet, the entire collection was transferred to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland in accordance with Gurlitt's last will. Gurlitt died on May 6, 2014 in Munich. However,  the special task force “Schwabinger Kunstfund”  processing the trove had not yet finished its restitution-based provenance research and so a compromise was made between the Kunst and the executors of Gurlitt's will. According to Masurovsky, any object deemed to be "clean" would be instantly transferred to Bern, while objects requiring additional research would remain with the German Task Force as they ascertain whether any evidence of plunder exists and if there is the possibility of identifying the plundered owners. Theoretically, this process is set to conclude in 2020, given the large number of works. This compromise is meant to ensure that only "clean" artworks end up in the Kunst. 


In accordance with the compromise, the Kunstmuseum Bern now owns the "clean" works, a reality that worries HARP. Since it is now the responsibility of the museum to conduct a more exacting provenance for these items, Marc argues that "how well Bern will do this job is pure conjecture." The fear, according to my interviews with Masurovsky is that un-restituted objects are indeed part of the hoard in Bern's possession, and their location in Switzerland, a country that "leaves no legal room for consideration of restitution for looted objects," will prevent the initiation of claims to the artworks. 

In sum, it appears that German courts are bowing to precedent in regards to restitution cases, allowing the statute-of-limitation to be used as a defense. Only time will tell if such precedent will be followed or ignored, in cases such as the Gurlitt case, as families continue to lay claim to what they believe has been wrongfully taken from them. 

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Editor’s postscript:  The Kunstmuseum Bern obtained exclusive jurisdiction over the 238 (arguably more significant) artworks that were seized in Gurlitt’s house in Salzburg (Aigen), Austria in February 2014. As the Germin remit does not extend to property held in Austria, these artworks have their own separate inventory and are the exclusive province of Bern regarding the research into their past ownership. ARCA hopes that these works will undergo the same moral and ethical due diligence required of the Munich grouping.

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* In 2017 Marc Masurovsky will be teaching provenance research training as part of ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, as well as a short course affiliated with ARCA's June conference. 

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